LESSONS, FATHER EDITION
My dad is a stranger smiling from faded square photos. He’s always smiling for the camera, full-force-beaming-take-my-picture style. His hair is like mine, wavy and blonde beyond the point when tow-headed kids turn dishwater.
Later, we are both dishwater, but at thirty and not thirteen.
He wears hats for the pictures that probably embarrassed my mom at the time. He smokes and holds cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and looks at baby me as if I am a wonderful shock to him. He puts the hats on my baby head and unlit cigarettes in my dolls’ mouths, for his entertainment.
The smiling man devolved into a fragmented collection of people. Some of them, I remember. Some of them I loved, and some I hated, and some I plotted to make disappear.
My daddy was the smartest person in the world, because no one else could explain–without being asked–how things worked. He didn’t just explain, he demonstrated: a light bulb the size of my five-year-old head could be attached this way to a car battery to make it glow, and to this many car batteries to make it explode. He wanted me to learn the lesson about the fun to be had with electricity, but I also learned that explosions could happen near him, because of him, and I’d better be prepared.
He took me to the dark field with his friend Doug to wait for the UFOs to come back after my mother had fallen asleep inside the trailer, and he explained how we–he and I, and a few other people like Einstein and Pasteur and Copernicus and DaVinci–were not just human. We were hybrids, like the corn in the field where he had made this clearing, and the alien blood in our veins made us more resistant to disease and more intelligent than, say, Mommy or Mrs. Altopp. And we waited, with our black itchy stocking caps on our heads to keep alien radiation from reaching our brains; we might be taken “up”, if they realized that we were mixed. He put his motorcycle helmet on my brain for extra protection; I learned that my daddy valued me, and that our strangeness could be explained scientifically.
My daddy was the only monster of my childhood. From him, I learned that people can lose control of themselves and do horrible things to people they love. He would disappear into himself and wreak havoc, and return to soothe the wounds he had caused but couldn’t remember inflicting. My childhood plots to kill him never got to the killing part; he always came back to himself before I had to swing the hammer I hid under my bed. He had taught me to hit a nail with that hammer, and I split my own lip on the backswing during my only lesson. I did learn to hit a nail before I nailed myself in the face. He sent me inside to my mother, but I stole his hammer from his shed that night after he left for the tavern. He blamed Doug, and they didn’t speak for a while. My fat lip taught me that my six-year-old self could do some damage. The hammer had a good handle; the rocks I’d hoarded for the same purpose never had the momentum to do any harm, and the sticks for handles always fell off.
The stories I hear from his family (and mine) about “the old Jerry, not after he got sick,” make me yearn for more. I have so few memories uncolored by his illness. He taught my real estate agent to drive on a push-button transmission: put it in neutral, push the pedal to the floor, hit drive, and hold on. Measure the burnout, so you can lose more rubber next time. She was his girlfriend’s little sister, and to her, he sparked with humor and bravery and boldness and risk-taking. He was handsome, she said. I see that in my yellowed photographs.
My daddy didn’t teach me to drive, but just told me to get in and quit being a sissy about it. I wouldn’t go to jail at fourteen for driving him to the tavern, and he couldn’t get a license any more anyway. The humor had leaked out of him for the most part, the bravery became recklessness; risk was all that was left, and I spent my teens trying to reduce it, for both our sakes. Getting caught doing his bidding meant no more weekends joyriding on scooters through back roads, or playing pool or pinball–and always ALWAYS losing to him–when he wanted to drink away from my grandma’s house where he lived for a while. From my dad, I learned how to tell the whole outrageous truth and have it believed a lie, and that when someone hands you the keys, you’d better learn to put it in gear.
His second wife gave him a son as reckless and free-spirited as he was. He is a stranger to me, too, but I love him dearly. He was my surprise brother: my dad showed up at our door with a newborn when I was almost ten, and left him for the day. I didn’t even know that he had fathered another child until he arrived with a baby in hand. I have always wondered how many others might be out there, blessed with the genetic material that makes me fearless and silly and reckless and blonde. My mother’s genes are cautious.
I am their hybrid.
There’s so much more to my father than this, but I don’t know what. My last memories are just phone calls, me trying to arrange visits, him telling me that riding the bus into his neighborhood was not safe for a white girl. I know that he was an incurable thief, but he was robbed of everything before he died, an easy target for his neighbors. He called me to wish me a happy birthday a few times in his last year, and I couldn’t bring myself to correct him. He meant well.
I wonder how much of his illness came from the teenage car accidents–and near-death head injuries–and how much came from the chemical abuse, and how much was in him at birth. Maybe the three can’t be separated, but the end result was a life in pieces. When the funny, smart, cunning pieces ran his show, we had fun. Other pieces eventually took over, and we spent weekends running the back roads looking for a runaway dog that died when I was six, or tearing apart the garage to find a box of road flares that we had burned the summer before. He never believed my truths. Eventually, I stopped going. I couldn’t keep him safe any more, so I made excuses about having plans with my friends, and stayed home where no one let me do anything mildly reckless. I didn’t even try.
My daddy died the way a doctor predicted when dad was twenty-five and my mother, his new wife, made him seek medical attention. He had a seizure when he was probably drunk, but toxicology came back negative for other drugs. He was alone in an apartment that I had never visited. My predictions of being his caretaker some day never came true. His brothers and sisters and mother took care of everything when he died; my brother and I just sifted through some things they laid out for us at my grandma’s house.
I have his glasses and some jewelry that wasn’t his, and report cards full of, “He would be a fine student if HE would just stay in his seat and stop pestering the other children,” all A’s and F’s. Somewhere, the treadle sewing machine that my mother’s mother helped him to fix waits for me in a garage. If it’s still there, I look forward to having it some day, to remind myself of the hours of time my that he and my Gram spent fussing and cleaning and tuning it to make it purr. She complained and he cajoled, and the sewing machine made stitches in the end.
Be ready for things to blow up if they glow too brightly.
Put the helmet on the smallest person if there is only one helmet to be had.
Monsters hide in plain sight, but so do angels.
Use wisely the tools at hand and keep them close.
Make truths worthy of disbelief.
Go, no matter what.
Accept every baby, even unbelievable ones.
Predictions are useless.
Pick up that thing from the side of the road and make it something wonderful. Your daughter might remember forever, and treasure that trash as a childhood memory of love and patience and cooperation when those things were in scant supply.
Ask questions. People don’t always offer up stories of a man they think you don’t want to remember.